Many marijuana and terpene enthusiasts believe the unique effects of individual plants are the result of different cannabinoids – most notably THC – working in concert with other cannabinoids and terpenes.
They call it the “entourage effect,” and some cannabis businesses have increasingly paid attention to it as a unique way to market and sell products.
However, here are some of the challenges marijuana companies are running into as they do so:
- The entourage effect is a complicated subject that people working in direct contact with cannabis customers may not be fully equipped to explain.
- Some scientists dismiss the theory as unproven.
- Funding around the research of the entourage effect has been sparse.
What are the marketing benefits?
“There are at least 36 cannabinoids that we know the cannabis plant produces, and if we focus just on THC, we miss the medicinal properties of the plant,” said Steve Ottersberg, president of Green Lab Solutions in Durango, Colorado.
The entourage effect entered the marijuana industry’s consciousness a couple of decades ago, and most MJ businesses today have a basic understanding of it, noted Brad Bogus, vice president of growth and marketing at Confident Cannabis, a California firm that offers an online software platform for testing labs, producers and retailers.
Some cannabis businesses – particularly those involved in concentrates, oil and oil-related products – have added the entourage effect to their marketing repertoire.
“Companies that are involved with things like concentrates, vape pens, tinctures, balms, creams – you’ll see 10% to 25% of them use the entourage effect in their marketing,” Bogus said.
The entourage effect has a central role in marketing and education efforts at Papa & Barkley, a Eureka, California maker of cannabis-infused balms, body oils, tinctures, capsules and other products. The company has developed:
- Consumer guides that discuss how different compounds found in cannabis have different effects.
- Website information discussing the entourage effect.
- Education events held at its facilities where staff talk about the entourage effect and how plant compounds work together.
Kimberly Dillon, chief marketing officer at Papa & Barkley, estimated that about 30% of the firm’s educational and marketing content is devoted to the entourage effect or related subjects.
While a growing number of companies are aware of or are trying to market the entourage effect, it’s difficult to pull off successfully.
The subject is complicated. And many employees at marijuana businesses – particularly those who have contact with consumers – aren’t equipped to explain it, Confident Cannabis’ Bogus noted.
Where’s the scientific proof?
Many scientists dismiss the entourage theory as unproven at best, and a sham at worst.
“(There’s) not a lot of data,” Margaret Haney, a neurobiologist at Columbia University in New York City, told Scientific American magazine last year.
“The large majority of what’s being said is driven by anecdotal marketing. These guys are really trying to make money.”
Many entourage believers agree with skeptics that more studies need to be done about the entourage effect.
They argue that while there is already ample evidence of the entourage effect, more studies will further prove that it’s real so it can be harnessed for medical and consumer purposes.
“With time, we’ll get to understand what the benefits are. For now, it’s empirical. Sometimes you have to use anecdotal data,” said Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a neurology professor at the University of South Florida and the medical director for 3 Boys Farm, a licensed medical marijuana company in Florida.
Pioneering Israeli cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam noted the entourage effect in cannabis in a 1999 article in Natural Products Journal.
“This type of synergism may play a role in the widely held view that in some cases, plants are better drugs than the natural products isolated from them,” Mechoulam wrote.
In 2011, neurologist and cannabis researcher Ethan Russo wrote what is sometimes referred to as the seminal paper on the entourage effect in the British Journal of Pharmacology, providing a foundation for how it works.
The effect has been explored since then, but the research is still relatively scant.
More recent studies also support the existence of an entourage effect.
For example, one recent study in Brazil found that whole-plant CBD extracts were more effective against epilepsy than pure CBD extracts.
Some experts suggest that, by itself, THC is not a great chemical – boring at best and paranoia-anxiety-inducing at worst.
Scientists learned that after studying Marinol, a THC-only drug for nausea and appetite loss.
“It’s a tremendous flop because, by itself, THC is hard to tolerate,” Ottersberg said.
CBD, however, is known to counteract paranoid feelings that THC can induce by attaching itself to biological receptors and limiting the amount of THC that can be received, thereby limiting the paranoid effect.
“That’s why one-to-one CBD-THC strains are so popular,” Ottersberg noted. “The CBD makes THC more tolerable for a greater number of patients.”
Entourage effect’s future
“The future is systematically manipulating proportions of common components and studying the combinations,” said Sanchez-Ramos, the neurology professor and 3 Boys Farm medical director.
Other areas of research include exploring if the entourage effect is weaker or stronger depending on whether it’s smoked, vaped, eaten or consumed another way.
Federal research funding for the entourage effect has been sparse, researcher Russo wrote in an email to Marijuana Business Daily, noting that it took him more than 20 years to get a National Institute of Health grant to study “such relationships in cannabis.”
U.S. universities have also been hamstrung in cannabis research because of federal prohibitions, while a small number of private businesses are researching the benefits of the entourage effect, Russo wrote.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org